Conference Learnings

As an educational architect and a member of Learning Environments Australasia, I have been fortunate to attend the past fifteen Regional Conferences on the intersection between architecture and education. The conferences are always an enlightening experience with various speakers discussing the latest in educational theory, workplace development, technology and learning space. There is some talk on the architecture of spaces, but this is not the focus. The conference is more about how people, students, teachers, planners, designers, learners in general, and society, are changing and how our built space reflects this. When defining what we do as architects we often focus on the end product – the built creation. But it is at conferences like this where we focus on why we do what we do – learning about the people who are going to inhabit the spaces we create.

Fifteen years after attending my first LEA conference, it is interesting to reflect on how the narrative has changed, particularly around technology. A focus for the past few conferences has been the advance of Artificial Intelligence and the societal and demographic shifts which our school spaces need to cater for. Fifteen years ago we could not have considered that students would need to learnt how to interact with each other in person, or that they would have a device in their pockets that could connect to various sources of information at a push of a button. That we would in fact always have our calculators with us for these tricky calculations, much to our primary school maths teachers chagrin. Times are changing, and I find it fascinating to learn more about the how this will impact our world, and by extension the design of our learning spaces.

There were a lot of really great speakers this year, predominantly from the education and technology realms. These are some of the things I learnt from them:

Honourable Rob Stokes, NSW Minister for Education

Rob Stokes opened the conference with an interesting overview of what was happening in NSW, for those of us from out of town. He was a really engaging speaker, and certainly knew the education space. He discussed the need for education spaces to be flexible and look to the future, believing that we can be shaped by our environment. NSW is also looking at a community interactive model, where education, care and health services are co-located. It was nice to see a politician committed to the future, and actually acknowledging current research and best practice in pedagogical development as a driver of good architectural design.

Pasi Sahlberg, Educator, Finland

Generally when we think of the best education systems in the world, we think of Finland, who has topped the PISA scores for the last few years. Pasi gave us a few insights in to the Finnish system and how it works to not only top league tables but make its residents happier, healthier and smarter… There are quite a few myths around the Finnish system, like that they don’t have homework, so he spoke around these to start with.

Following this he advised on some successes of the Finnish system that could be replicated. One of the biggest markers of a successful system is pursuing excellence through equity, allowing people to reach their own potential regardless of where they’re from. How do we ‘get’ more equity though? Pasi suggested three things we really need – fair needs-based funding, a focus on well-being of the whole child, and trust in the school’s ability, regardless of numerical academic outcomes. I think we all know, in our hearts, that there is not one outcome or pathway in life, and these pathways are constantly evolving. But when it comes to education we still rank schools on how well their top students do, and how many get in to university. It would be great to see us move away from these measures, and look a how many soft skills students have at the end of their high schooling years, and how their passion for learning is engaged.

Another point I liked from Pasi was utilising the transparency of learning in both teachers and students. Teachers need to be constantly learning and collectively improving their systems. This learning culture mindset should be modelled to students, and teachers should have the respect and autonomy to individually practice, experiment and prototype. I feel there is a lot of pressure on our education system to not get it wrong, that we are putting lives at stake by changing things that have always worked. But, just imagine, if we got it right?

Mayfield Project Research Programme

This year’s Mayfielders concentrated on the confluence of schools and community, encouraging a curiosity mindset in all learners. As mere strangers two months ago they embarked on a serious and intense workshop with NoTosh after researching how teachers learn. Through sharing their research, thoughts and insights over three days, the group realised – Everyone Is A Learner. But learners generally learn independently – teachers learn independently of students, business managers learn independently of teachers, the community learns independently of schools… What if we could see the common threads between what people are learning, and what people know about, and bring them together? How could we encourage a community of curiosity amongst all learners? What might these places of connection look like?

The group came up with two possible solutions – A Map of Curiosity, linking learners and learnees, and A Place of Curiosity, where learning groups come together to share, encourage and evolve. I liked that the Mayfielders involved a group of young school students to come up with innovative ways for linking community and school (like ‘make shoes out of a map to get here’ or ‘make a running game’). The project also worked in with Gonski 2.0, aiming to put children at the centre of learning, and encourage an evolving education system. The presentation was great and it was so good to see so many enthusiastic and committed young practitioners up on the stage, talking about the changes that will be talking place in their time.

Dr Jordan Nguyen, Biomedical Engineer

The quote from Doc Jordan that really made me think – right now, we are living at the fastest rate of change in our lifetime, but we’re also living at the slowest rate we may ever see again.. When we were finishing school, we couldn’t even imagine the careers that are an everyday part of our life now, or the possibilities of our globally and digitally connected society. But in this period of such rapid change, are ethics keeping up?

Jordan does amazing stuff – using current technology and digital advancement to improve people’s lives. Did you know that 1 in 5 people in Australia have some kind of disability? I didn’t know that. He is working with people to increase how robotics can be improved, for example by increasing the rate at which visually-operated keyboards can respond, to allow people who use these devices for communication to communicate at a more natural speed, therefore increasing their interaction with peers and friends. He is working with schools to develop up their skills for the future, and showed an amazing example of a pair of Year 4 girls who worked together to create an app that shows a 3d model of the heart, which could be integrated with VR to enable you to ‘walk through’ the heart and determine how things work. These were Year 4 girls – and this app won them second place. It is amazing the capabilities our young people have as digital natives, when given the freedom to explore. Its fascinating stuff, I saw Jordan on Catalyst a few months ago, and would highly recommend checking out what he is doing on iView.

Claire Madden, Demographer and Author

Claire has recently completed a comprehensive study on Gen Z and Gen Alpha to learn about how future learners will study, acquire and use knowledge. From a demographic point of view she had some interesting statistics, including this one I found scary: in 1965 there were 7 working people for every person over 65. Now there are just 4.5, and by 2055 there will be only 2.5. And yet we are currently producing double the products per hour that we were in the 1970s. How does this intense consumerism, coupled with less workers per capita, contribute to our society, and how will it change it? From an environmental point of view, how do we continue on this path, knowing the endpoint can’t be sustainable?

In her surveys with current Gen Z students, Claire found some interesting insights, but to me not necessarily surprising. When asked what they wanted to do with their future, most students answered that they wanted to do something they liked, and they wanted to make a difference to the world. Looking back as to how I would have answered that question in high school all those years ago, I don’t think my answer would have been much different. But the way they are striving towards those goals is different. Why do they need to memorise dates and places when they can ‘just Google it’s? Why do they get shown directorial leadership models in the classroom, when their workplaces will require then to be collaborative, agile and engaged?

I also found the reflections on social / digital media really interesting. Most of the students Claire talked to, spoke of the new online communities they had to be a part of, and how that was changing their language and understanding of friendships. But interestingly, most acknowledged that they didn’t like it – they yearned for the days they could be outside, playing with friends, and not feel the pressure of missing out if they weren’t online. That was an interesting perspective that I hadn’t thought of before, that people always involved in digital communities, didn’t necessarily want to be there. It will be interesting to see how this idea plays out, and if this eventually reaches a tipping point..

Peter Hutton, Principal, Templestowe College

Peter Hutton was our final speaker of the conference. He introduced the unique work done at Templestowe with a scenario of the impact of the increasing development of Artificial Intelligence on society. In a world where AI is on the verge of accessing the complete sum of our accumulated digital knowledge, and we need to determine what it will do with it, we need to focus on what makes students, human. As Charles Leadbeater has recently noted ‘school is preparing students to be second-class robots.’ As AI is changing our world so rapidly, we as a society need to determine how we will also change, and how students will need to learn in the future. It is time for our learning spaces to change, and we need to be ready for the changes to come.

Peter also revealed a scary two-year-old case study of an AI Twitter handle created by Microsoft to learn about the world. Within twenty-four hours it had to be retired as it had turned into a sex-addicted, Nazi-loving political deviant. Its shocking what AI could absorb from our depraved online society of anonymous contributors, and this is part of society our future students will be a part of. Challenging times ahead indeed…

Templestowe College has taken on some of these challenges through their strategic planning, and are doing some really interesting things. As Peter notes ‘students have far more capacity than we give them credit for.’ There are a few ways the College is different to other schools, starting with the concept that students and teachers are equal, with everyone being on a first name basis. Every request for new ideas, either put forward by a student or staff, has to be responded to with yes. Every student has an Individual Learning Plan, written by the students, so the students are in charge of their own learning. Students are employed by the school as sports coaches, gardeners, in office administration and interview all new staff. Students are also encouraged to have on-site start-up businesses which is manifest in graphic design, clothing production, skateboard creation and even snake breeding companies. The skills these students are learning are designed to support creativity, collaboration and problem solving, and encourage lifelong learning.

I always enjoy the LEA conference as I learn a lot of interesting, insightful and useful information. As an architect we don’t just learn about buildings – there is so much more to creating space than that. To anyone who has children in an education system, and anyone who is interested in education, the future and technology, I encourage you to attend our events. Next year the regional conference is going to be in Perth, and we intend to have just as insightful speakers. Please join our mailing list by emailing wa@a4le.org.au if you want to hear more about what’s coming up. Hope to see you at an event soon!

You can read what I thought about the 2017 conference here and the 2015 conference here.

PS My pictures are all from my phone, so not the best. I’m sure LEA will have much better photos – I’ll post a link once they’re available.

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